Numerous theories, which have given rise to an abundant literature, have been advanced since the end of the nineteenth century to explain the origins of monasticism in Egypt. Some explanations appeal to a revival of the way of life of the Therapeutae described by Philo, those Jewish ascetics who lived in the neighborhood of Alexandria in the first century; to a survival of certain practices of the ancient Egyptian religion (recluses of Sarapis); to the influence of the Manichaean missions that reached Egypt from the third century; and more recently, since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, to the influence of the Gnostic sects.
None of these explanations is convincing. The very beginnings of the monastic movement are obscure. Normally Saint ANTONY is considered to be “the father of the monks,” but the Life of Antony bears witness that when he was converted to the ascetic life in 270, there were already ascetics who withdrew from the villages. The new feature with Saint Antony—unless he was preceded in this way of life by PAUL OF THEBES—is that, instead of remaining near the village as the other ascetics did, he went into the interior of the desert and practiced there an ANACHORESIS that grew ever greater. This anachoresis is, in fact, what characterizes monasticism properly so called.
One cannot relate this monastic anachoresis, as certain historians have done, with the “anachoresis” of the peasants who fled from their villages to escape fiscal burdens. But certain circumstances could have furthered it, notably the persecutions, which drove some Christians to the desert. Such was precisely the case, if we believe Saint Jerome, with Paul of Thebes himself, who took refuge in the desert during the Decian persecution (249-250) and remained there permanently, embracing by free choice a way of life that necessity had at first imposed upon him.
The monastic anachoresis has an essentially religious motive, arising from the ideals of the Christian ascetics of the first centuries. Before designating the monk who lived in the solitude of the desert, the Greek word monachos, according to its earliest attestations, described the ascetic who was a “solitary” because he renounced marriage in order to have no other concern but the service of the Lord (cf. I Cor. 7:32-35). By separating himself from the world through anachoresis, the monk realized in an effective way that renunciation of the world that is the fundamental element of Christian ascesis.
This distancing from the world, realized in material terms, was felt to be all the more necessary after the conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity, when the “world,” in the Johannine sense of the term, invaded the church itself. Thus the monk appeared as the successor of the martyr, a witness to the incompatibility of the world and Christian faith.
In its beginnings, monasticism was anchorite. PACHOMIUS himself began by living as an anchorite, under the guidance of the anchorite PALAEMON. It was only after disciples had come to him and he had learned by experience that it was necessary to organize their way of life that he created monasteries. Each monastery contained a number of “houses,” and the whole body of the monasteries constituted the Pachomian koinonia or congregation. Each house, each monastery, and the congregation itself had at its head a superior, and was under rigorous material organization. The monks had everything in common: prayer, meals, work.
Written rules regulated the life of the community down to its slightest details. Communities of the same type—designated by the name of cenobitism—multiplied in Upper Egypt in the course of the third century, in particular in the church that issued from the Melitian schism. The most celebrated, after those of Pachomius, are those in the region of Akhmim in the fourth and fifth centuries that were dominated by the powerful personality of SHENUTE.
In Lower Egypt, under the more or less direct influence of Antony, monasticism developed especially in the form of semi-anchoritism. This occurred in particular in the celebrated deserts of SCETIS, NITRIA, and the KELLIA. There the solitary and the communal life balanced one another. The monks lived alone, each in his cell during the week, and came together on Saturdays and Sundays in the church, where they took together a meal called the agape and participated in the eucharistic liturgy, celebrated by monk priests. Living as hermits, the monks were divided in a rather free fashion, it appears, into congregations, each of which had its church.
One of the priests assisted by a council of the elders exercised a certain authority. At Scetis, where there were four congregations in the fifth century, the whole body of the monks was under the authority of one of them, considered “the father of Scetis.” But this authority was more moral and charismatic than judicial. In the early period, the life of the monks in these deserts was not subject to any written rule. It was regulated above all by the traditional teaching of the elders, transmitted orally.
Two features are strongly characteristic of this monasticism— work and residence in a cell. Manual work was an obligation, each monk having to provide for his needs—at Scetis the majority of the monks devoted themselves to basket-making. This work was to be as far as possible continual, like prayer itself, which consisted not only in the recitation of the office at appointed hours but also in what was called melete (meditation), the recitation of texts from scripture, chiefly from the psalms. The monks were constrained to residence in their cells, which was called hesychia, a term borrowed from the Hellenic tradition.
In Egypt, and particularly in the region of Oxyrhynchus, legendary traits and factual description are inextricably mixed in stories that tell of monks who led an itinerant life. But in general Egyptian monasticism did not show itself very favorable to this form of asceticism, which was much in favor in Syrian monasticism. “Remain seated in your cell” is the counsel that unflaggingly recurs in the APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM in reply to the young monk who asks an older one how he will be saved. “Remain seated in your cell,” is the very definition of hesychia. The word implies, at the same time, solitude, silence, quiet reflection, but above all the steadfastness in one’s cell that is the condition of the rest.
The monks rapidly became very numerous. From the time of the earliest documents, high figures are given, the accuracy of which is difficult to judge. The author of the HISTORIA MONACHORUM IN AEGYPTO speaks of an abbot Serapion in the Fayyum who was at the head of a community of about 10,000 monks; elsewhere he affirms that in the town of Oxyrhynchus the monastic population was in his time (end of the fourth century) more numerous than the civilian population—5,000 monks in this desert and 600 in the neighboring desert of the Kellia.
According to Palladius, when Pachomius was alive, the Pachomian congregation comprised 3,000 monks; toward the end of the fourth century 7,000 monks—1,300 in the monastery of Tabennese alone—lived according to the Pachomian rules (chap. 32, p. 93). In the preface to his translation of the Rules of Saint Pachomius, Saint Jerome reports a clearly exaggerated figure of 50,000 monks as having attended at the chapter general of the congregation every year (Boon, 1932, p. 8). According to the Arabic Life of Shenute, the monks who found themselves under the authority of this archimandrite were 2,200 (Amélineau, 1907, p. 143).
John Moschus, the Palestinian author of the Pratum Spirituale, reports that an abbot, John of Petra, told him that when he was at Scetis in his youth toward the beginning of the sixth century, there were then in this desert about 3,500 monks. This figure is not improbable, but what the fifteenth-century historian al- MAQRIZI affirms on the faith of ancient historians, that at the time of the Arab conquest 70,000 monks from Scetis betook themselves to meet ‘Amr ibn al-‘As (trans. in Leroy, 1908), cannot be accepted.
If all these figures are not trustworthy, it is nevertheless certain that the monastic population of Egypt before the coming of Islam was extremely numerous. Thereafter it diminished greatly. According to the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS there were in Scetis in the eleventh century only 712 monks, divided among seven monasteries (Evelyn-White, 1932, p. 360).
It is appropriate to add to this male monastic population the nuns, who according to the ancient documents were also very numerous. From the beginning there were women in the church who dedicated themselves to virginity, but continued to live at home. It is not certain that the virgins to whom Saint Antony entrusted his young sister in about 270 when he was converted to the ascetic life (Life of Antony 3) were already living in a community (Garitte, 1961).
An interesting testimony about the creation of a monastery for women is furnished by Palladius, who relates how an ascetic named Elias gathered together some virgins who until then had lived separately, and founded a monastery for them in the town of Atrib. It is known that Pachomius founded two monasteries for women, and a third was established by his successor Theodorus. The first that Pachomius founded for his sister and her companions is probably the one described by Palladius in chapters 33 and 34 of his Historia lausiaca (Butler, 1904, pp. 96-100). It was at Tabennese itself, where the first monastery for men had been established, but on the other side of the river.
A strict regulation forbade any passage from one monastery to the other. Only a priest and a deacon might go to the women’s monastery on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. Four hundred nuns were then in residence there. Palladius affirms besides that there were twelve monasteries of women at this same period in the single town of Antinoopolis in the Fayyum. Later, 1,800 lived under the authority of Shenute, according to the testimony of the Arabic Life (Amélineau, 1907). There were women who condemned themselves to RECLUSION, like the virgin Alexandra who, according to Palladius, shut herself up in a tomb in the environs of Alexandria. But it is not very likely that there were women hermits.
The desert and the monks who lived there did not welcome women. The desert was characterized as the place where there are no women (Apophthegmata Patrum, Sisoes 3, Migne: Patrologia Graeca 65, 392D). Stories of women living incognito in a cave lost in the depths of the desert and being discovered only when they are on the point of dying (Verba Seniorum, John III, Migne: Patrologia Latina 73, 1008 A.B.) probably belong more to hagiographic romance than to real history.
Egypt has long been considered the motherland of monasticism. Born in Egypt, the monastic movement was thought to have spread from there throughout the Christian world. In reality, it is now established that the movement appeared almost simultaneously and in independent fashion in other countries, notably in Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia. But Egypt was the favorite land of monasticism. Probably in no other country was the monastic population so numerous. Egyptian monasticism very early enjoyed an almost universal celebrity, thanks to the literary works devoted to it, which met with an extraordinary diffusion.
There were biographies such as the Life of Saint Antony by Saint ATHANASIUS or the Lives of Saint Pachomius; travel narratives like the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto and the Lausiac History of Palladius; and above all the Apophthegmata Patrum which, compiled in Greek and translated not only into Latin but into all the languages of the Christian Orient, made the teaching and the way of life of the monks in the deserts of Nitria and Scetis known everywhere. Through the Latin translation of the Rules of Pachomius made by Saint Jerome, and the Conferences and Cenobitic Institutes of John CASSIAN, the example of the Egyptian monks exercised a profound influence on the origins of the Western and Benedictine monastic tradition.
Thus Egyptian monasticism took on an exemplary and normative significance. Everywhere people sought to take as their model the Egyptian masters, and it was through them that they came to be initiated into the monastic life. Rufinus and Melania the Elder, on their way to found monasteries in Jerusalem, stopped and sojourned among the monks of Nitria toward 374. Some twenty years earlier Saint Basil, who laid down the laws for monasticism in the Greek world, had made a journey among the monks of Egypt before himself withdrawing into solitude at Annesoi in Pontus.
It is said of numerous monks in Mesopotamia that at the beginning of their monastic life they too went to visit the monks of Egypt, as, for example, did Abraham the Great, founder of the great monastery of Mount Izlâ, in the sixth century. The prestige and authority that Egyptian monasticism enjoyed were such that fictitious tales were circulated, the aim of which was to give local monasticism Egyptian origins, in order to confer upon it a greater nobility. Such is the aim of the legend of Mâr Awgên who, an Egyptian by birth and in his youth a disciple of Pachomius, is said to have imported monasticism into the region of Nisibis in the fourth century. The Life of Hilarion, written by Saint Jerome at Bethlehem toward 390, arose even earlier from the intention of attaching Palestinian monasticism to Saint Antony and the monasticism of Egypt.
Monasticism left a profound mark on Coptic Christianity in its piety, its ethics, and its institutions. With few exceptions, down to our own day the patriarch is chosen from among the clergy who come from the monastic milieu. But Egyptian monasticism, through the immense influence it exercised outside of Egypt, has set its stamp no less profoundly upon the church universal, in the West as well as in the East. This is certainly the most considerable legacy Egypt has left to Christianity.
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